Impossible Debt Forgiven

Sermon based on Mt 18:21-35 for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear forgiven debtors: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you are deep in debt, the last thing you want to hear is that your creditor is looking to settle accounts. When you are unable to pay what you owe, you don’t want your creditor to come looking for you. In Jesus’ parable we heard this morning, we hear of a servant who is in exactly such a bind. To say that he is in serious debt is an understatement. He owes 10,000 talents. For a day labourer, that’s the salary for sixty million days of work. Sixty million days.

The master knows that he will never receive from the servant what he owes. It’s an impossible debt. So the master ordered the servant to be sold along with his wife, children, and everything that he had so that he could at least recover something out of what he is owed. He wouldn’t even be able to recover pennies on the dollar. What he could recover would be insignificant. Not even a drop in the bucket. More like a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, it is time to settle accounts.

“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” The servant is of course delusional. There’s no amount of time that would allow him to pay the debt. He doesn’t have the one hundred sixty-five thousand years it would require to work off the debt. It’s an impossible debt.

The servant isn’t even asking for mercy. He’s asking for time to pay his debt. He’s asking for the wrong thing. Time will be of no help to him. It is an impossible debt.

But the master has compassion on his servant. Out of the blue, the master releases him and forgives his debt. The impossible debt disappears as if at the snap of the master’s fingers. Two thousand lifetimes worth of debt are erased. The servant’s account is settled.

You would expect his life to have changed completely. He went from being buried under a mountain of debt into which he could never put a dent in his lifetime, to having no debt whatsoever. Not a penny of debt. Instead of being sold into slavery along with his wife and children, he and his family are free, with nothing hanging over their heads.

But it was not so. His life was not changed. He didn’t really think that he had been forgiven all that great of a debt. After all, he had said that he just needed a bit of time to pay it off. He felt that his debt was tiny and didn’t require all that much mercy to be forgiven. He saw no change in his life.

When he departs, he sees his fellow servant who owes him one hundred denarii, and he grabs him by the throat and chokes him, demanding payment be made. Having just been forgiven sixty million days’ wages, he chokes his fellow servant for one hundred days’ wages. The servant has managed to skew the sizes of the debts. He thinks that he has been forgiven very little, yet his fellow servant owes him such a huge debt, that surely he has a right to collect. Surely no mercy can be expected from him for so great a debt.

His fellow servant did exactly what he had done earlier. He fell to his knees and pleaded for patience and promised to pay his debt. In this case, there actually is a realistic expectation that the servant could pay his debt. Given time, it would have been possible to pay it off. But this wicked servant would have none of it. He threw his fellow servant into prison until he would pay his debt.

No one could be this cold and hard-hearted after having received such mercy, unless he thought that the debt he had been forgiven was tiny compared to the debt that he was owed. He was unable to forgive his fellow servant because he felt that the size of his fellow servant’s debt was just too great to forgive. And because of his skewed view on the relative sizes of the debts, not only did he act unmercifully towards his fellow servant, but the mercy offered to him was also revoked and he himself was thrown in jail forever, because he will never be able to pay all of his debt.

Jesus uses this parable to teach us about forgiving those who have sinned against us. Along with Peter, we wonder how many times we must forgive those who sin against us. We may even offer what we think is a generous number of times to forgive – seven. We struggle to forgive because we think that those who have sinned against us owe us huge. We think their sins against us are so great that we have a right not to forgive them – my sister who cheated me out of my inheritance; my spouse who was unfaithful to his marriage vows; a drunk driver who killed my child. We look at the sins of others against us as if they are gigantic and unforgiveable, but our sins as tiny and insignificant. Thus we think we deserve forgiveness for our little sins, but those who sin against us do not deserve forgiveness at all from us. We skew things so badly and think that this is justice – because we deserve forgiveness but those who sin against us do not.

Jesus points to the reality of the situation: the sins of others against us are next to nothing compared to our sins against God. Along with Peter we may think that we have little to be forgiven, but we will forgive the gigantic sins of our brother seven times just because we are so generous and merciful. Jesus takes our skewed thinking and says we are the servant who owed sixty million day’s wages. It is we who owed more than we can pay in two thousand lifetimes. We had an impossible debt, and there was nothing we could do to put dent in that debt.

But our Master had compassion on us. Jesus took our debt on Himself. Two thousand lifetimes worth of debt are erased because Jesus paid for them, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. Our accounts have been settled. Our debt is gone. Our sins are gone.

This did not just happen because God snapped His fingers, but because Jesus took our debt on Himself. He took our sins and guilt on Himself. He got buried in our mountains of debt. Yours. Mine. The sins of the whole world.

Now we can look at the sins of others against us as they truly are – insignificant compared to how much we have been forgiven. We will never be able to forgive others if we do not see the sin of others as a debt of one hundred denarii to us, and our sins against God as sixty million denarii. We will never be able to forgive others if we think that if God just gave us a bit of time we would be able to repay Him. We will never be able to forgive others if we think that the good things we do – whether coming to church, helping the poor, or even forgiving others are a payment towards the debt that we owe to God. Until we realize that our debt was impossible, and until we can call ourselves “chief of sinners”, we will not be able to forgive those who sin against us.

However, when we realize that our impossible debt has been forgiven, we can look at the sins against us as insignificant. When we realize that we can never pay God back for our sins, we will be more ready to forgive those who have sinned against us. When we realize that our account has been settled by the blood of Jesus, then we will not demand the blood of our brother who sins against us.

God is the merciful Master who forgives our impossible debt since it was paid by Jesus. God’s mercy in forgiving our great sins moves us to view the sins of others against us as insignificant compared to how much we have been forgiven by God, and thus to show mercy to them.

So dear forgiven debtors: forgive those who have sinned against you, because I tell you: your impossible debt is gone. Your account is settled. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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